The Orkney Inquiry: 'Reporter' is central figure in emotional saga

(First Edition)

What made Orkney different to equally emotive child abuse controversies in Cleveland and Rochdale is Scotland's unique child protection system.

Widely admired until the Orkney case, the Scottish system was created in 1968 and placed much emphasis on the role of childrens' panels presided over by laymen.

The central figure in the process is the 'reporter', an independent official with a wide degree of discretion. Scotland has no juvenile courts so the panels, sitting as childrens' hearings, deal with minor crime and also decide what action to take in child protection cases.

The idea is to separate the functions, so that courts decide any disputed facts of a case, while children's hearings decide the treatment.

Children in need of care can be referred to the reporter by police, social work agencies, or any member of the public. He investigates and may decide no action is needed, or refer the child to a local authority, or call a childrens' hearing if compulsory care is needed.

But the panel can consider a case only where the child and parents accept the reporter's grounds for referring it to the panel.

If parents do not accept the reporter's grounds, the panel can drop the case, or order the reporter to go to a Sheriff Court for a decision on whether the grounds are established.

If the court accepts his grounds, the case goes back to the reporter for a hearing to be arranged. In the Orkney case, the children were taken from their homes on February 27, 1991 in a coordinated operation by police and social workers acting under place-of-safety orders granted by a sheriff.

The parents disputed the grounds of referral but on April 4, Sheriff David Kelbie threw out the case at a procedural stage without hearing the full evidence. 'The sooner they are returned to their parents, the better,' said the sheriff, who warned the reporter to give 'very serious consideration' to the evidence if he wanted to press ahead with the case.

That ruling effectively aborted the procedure but legally left matters in limbo -the parents' names tarnished, the children returned to them but without the evidence having been fully heard.

The reporter, Gordon Sloan, appealed on legal grounds against the Sheriff's ruling. During the appeal, he announced the Orkney affair would not be pursued.

On June 12, 1991, the Scottish appeal court upheld his appeal, saying the sheriff had erred in law and that his remarks had damaged any prospect of a fair hearing. The judges found, in effect, that the sheriff had let his heart rule his head.

Quite separately from the child protection procedures, the Orkney saga was also a criminal investigation by police, reporting to Crown officials. In May 1991, the Crown Office in Scotland said the investigation was complete and no charges would be brought.